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When I decided to jump into the deep end with no flotation
device, the question was; how to begin? While my writing had, in the past, generated
respectable feedback, said writing had been mostly technical and was directed
to a limited audience. And so I thought to follow conventional wisdom; once I had
committed to creating a full-blown novel my plan was to create a plot outline,
and work from that. I had a theme in mind; a serious rivalry over a limited
natural resource such as water, and considering that we experience that even
here on a planet with a bounteous supply, that should have made for a
believable enough theme. And yes, I do admit to being influenced by Frank
Herbert’s ‘Dune’, though there are few similarities. My intention at the outset
was to write a work of ‘hard’ science fiction, but one not devoid of character,
as some works of that genre sometimes strike me.
Armed with that noble intent I set forth to fully outline my
plot, and I sat down at my keyboard with grand purpose and a glint of
determination in my eye.
And then, well... nothing much happened.
I could not seem to jump-start myself, and though the wheels
were turning, they were spinning in place. I could get no traction. With frustration
mounting I finally decided that I would take a scene that I had in mind and
just get started writing.
Damn the roadmaps!
It was not quite so rash a move as it might sound, because I
knew from long experience that I tend to think more effectively when I’m
actually writing. On more than one occasion (in the world of Information
Technology), I would sit down to compose a question of a technical nature, and
in the process of assembling all the relevant data into a cogent whole, there I
would go and answer the question! Fiction is obviously a different beast than
is any technical specification, but still; perhaps the act of writing might
kick-start my thought process?
And so it did, though not at all as I had expected.
Every day I would start by rereading the prior days work and
tweaking it here and there, to get the gears re-engaged, and then I would
launch into the new day’s work. Not surprisingly, some days would go better
than others. At day’s end I’d walk a few miles, to clear the cobwebs and keep
the blood flowing, and in the process work out what the next scene might be and
sometimes looking farther ahead to consider major turns of plot. In some ways
that made it more fun, because I would be delighted when some new character
would arrive unannounced to add his or her flavoring to the mix. The turns my
novel would take surprised me more than once, and occasionally it was more like
reading a book as opposed to writing
one. My unstructured approach is likely a primary reason that Water Harvest
transformed itself from a work of hard SciFi to a science fiction fantasy, with
some of the happenings therein believable by the standards of science, and
others dependent upon suspension of disbelief through ‘plausible’ sorcery and dimensional
After I’d finished the first draft I realized that I’d
committed many of the sins common to new practitioners of fiction. ‘Purple
prose’ ran rampant, my point of view hopped around like a room full of tree
frogs, and I had serious stretches of ‘back-story’ where I was ‘telling’ rather
than ‘showing’. In learning more about those issues by reading established
author’s accounts of their own writing techniques, I was interested to find many
of them also dismissing the practice of outlining. Stephen King comes to mind
(though I believe I do recall him describing how he’d become lost for a time
towards the end of ‘The Stand’, and that’s a novel that had me seriously hooked
before leaving me dissatisfied with the final plot developments). Hmmm. I also
remember a novelist whose name I recognized but have since forgotten, who said
he would outline a novel, sit down and write it start to finish, and be done
with it! No editing!
I cannot see the latter technique ever working for me, and
probably not for most authors, but I do wonder if I should consider a more
centrist position? When I sat down to write this commentary (without an outline
;-), I googled the topic and found no shortage of postings, and many of the
arguments in support of outlining make sense. Suffice it to say that I spent a
lot more time fixing Water Harvest than I did writing the first draft, and
likewise my second novel ‘Guild of the Viizar’, and the third (work in process)
are unstructured efforts.
So should I make another attempt to outline up-front? I can certainly
understand the arguments in favor of it, but the thing is, I quite like Water Harvest, and it would most
certainly not have evolved as it did if I’d insisted upon outlining it first.
Some of the developments didn’t come to me until well into the book, and others
even later on rewrites. How about if I outlined it first, but allowed myself to
deviate from the path once in progress? That sounds OK, but would I actually deviate from my outline,
or just stick to the script? Or would I ever have completed an outline in the
I don’t know the one-size-fits-all answer to this question,
and I’d hazard that no one else does either. I’d hazard that there is no single
solution for everyone. The best advice I can fathom is that an author should go
with the tactic that works best for him or her, and be eager and willing to
change course when the need (or the whim?) arises.